Police investigate burning of church’s Progress Pride flag

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published September 19, 2023

 Christ Church Grosse Pointe Director of Music Scott Hanoian and the Rev. Andrew “Drew” Van Culin look at the new Progress Pride flag flying at the church after the previous flag was burned by an unknown person last week.

Christ Church Grosse Pointe Director of Music Scott Hanoian and the Rev. Andrew “Drew” Van Culin look at the new Progress Pride flag flying at the church after the previous flag was burned by an unknown person last week.

Photo provided by Shannon Byrne

GROSSE POINTE FARMS — An “act of violence.” That’s how the Rev. Andrew “Drew” Van Culin, pastor of Christ Church Grosse Pointe, is describing the decision of an unknown person to destroy the church’s Progress Pride flag by lighting it on fire last week.

“It was all a shock to us, of course,” Van Culin said.

Van Culin added the Progress Pride flag to a flagpole in front of the church several years ago to let people know that all were welcome. It isn’t known exactly when it was destroyed, but sometime between the afternoon of Sept. 10 and noon Sept. 13, someone set the flag ablaze as it hung from the pole. It wasn’t known if the suspect needed a ladder to reach the flag — which was the lowest one on the pole — or if the person was tall enough to reach up and set it on fire.

Van Culin said the flag was most likely destroyed the evening before it was discovered. He said a parishioner on a walk Sept. 13 noticed that the flag wasn’t there and then saw the burned remnants at the bottom of the pole and contacted the church.

Grosse Pointe Farms Detective Derek Lazarski, who has been assigned to the case, said the flag was made of polyester and thus burned quickly. The charred fragments fell to the ground, leaving a burnt section of grass, and the fire also damaged the adjacent Episcopal Church flag, which hung just above it. Both flags have since been replaced.

According to the website of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Progress Pride flag was designed in 2018 by nonbinary American artist and designer Daniel Quasar. The flag incorporates the rainbow design of the rainbow flag from 1978 but also speaks to the diversity of the LGBTQ+ community as it calls for more inclusivity.

“This is really an emotional act for our community in so many ways,” Van Culin said. “We’ve been grateful to hear from partners in the church community. The overwhelming response has been sadness and solidarity.”

Van Culin said the sadness comes from “the hostility and silent threat that this act proclaimed to our LGBTQ community” and from the fact that they’re not in communication with the person responsible for destroying the flag.

“I would say (to the person who burned the flag), let’s talk,” Van Culin said. “Let’s begin together.”

Following the flag burning, the progressive nonprofit community organization WE GP — which stands for Welcoming Everyone Grosse Pointe — took to social media to speak out against the act and offered to deliver free Progress Pride flags to anyone in the Grosse Pointes and Harper Woods who wanted one.

WE GP also issued a statement Sept. 15 which reads, in part, “WE GP is asking our Community to stand in solidarity against hate, bigotry, violence and intimidation and to send a clear message of Support and Love for all our LGBTQ community and for our Christ Church neighbors.”

Organizers fielded a large number of requests in just a couple of days.

“Thanks to our supportive community and a team of amazing volunteers, WE GP will be delivering over 200 Progress Pride Flags throughout the Grosse Pointes and Harper Woods this weekend,” WE GP President Shannon Byrne said by text Sept. 15. “We will fly our Pride flags with love and with an unwavering commitment to the safety, equal rights and dignity of our LGBTQ community.”

When Van Culin first put out the Progress Pride flag, he admits it generated a “myriad of responses” from parishioners, from praise to questions. The first person who mentioned the flag to him was the parent of a questioning youth, he said.

“This parent spoke with real gratitude,” Van Culin said. “Her child said to her, ‘I am grateful that my church will always receive me.’”

Not everyone was as enthusiastic, but Van Culin said the flag launched a number of important conversations with parishioners. He isn’t sure if anyone joined the church specifically because they saw the flag as a welcome sign, but he said it doesn’t appear that anyone left, either.

“I have been profoundly moved by the Christ Church community, that no one has threatened their membership as we have flown this flag,” Van Culin said.

Police have little evidence to go on, given that the church didn’t have surveillance cameras and cameras at neighboring Grosse Pointe South High School only cover as far as the school parking lot, Lazarski said. They’re hopeful someone in the community might have seen or heard something that could help in the investigation.

Van Culin said the church is considering “our response from a safety and security standpoint” while also wanting to make sure that they remain open and inviting.

At press time, Lazarski said the crime was being classified as a malicious act of destruction and not as a hate crime. It wasn’t known if that might change as the case progresses.

“We’re investigating it the same way we would with any crime,” Lazarski said.

A bill in front of the Michigan Legislature could make an act like this a felony. House Bill 4474, which was passed by the Michigan House of Representatives June 20, would amend the state’s penal code to address anyone who “is guilty of institutional desecration if that person maliciously and intentionally destroys, damages, defaces, or vandalizes, or threatens, by word or act, to destroy, damage, deface, or vandalize (property) … in whole or in part, because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, physical or mental disability, age, ethnicity, or national origin of another individual or group of individuals, regardless of the existence of any additional motivating factors.” A person who damages or destroys institutional property could face a felony charge and a prison sentence of up to 10 years or a fine of up to $15,000 or three times the amount of the destruction or injury, whichever is greater, or both prison and a fine.

The legislation, which hadn’t gone in front of the Michigan Senate at press time, was introduced by state Rep. Noah Arbit, D-West Bloomfield.

“We must remember that there are men and women, young and old, who are living under threat every day, and it is our responsibility as a society — and certainly our responsibility as a church — to embrace them, to protect them and to love them,” Van Culin said. “That’s why we fly this flag — to say that we are a place of love.”

The case remained under investigation at press time. Lazarski asked anyone who might have seen something suspicious or might have more information about this incident to contact him at (313) 640-1611.

“If anybody has seen anything, we’d like to talk to them,” Lazarski said.